The European Parliament has voted for major reductions in sugar in baby food and also prohibited labeling of baby foods at too early an age. It has rejected efforts to rewrite rules on baby foods which would have allowed such foods to contain high levels of sugar. It also struck down calls to label such products from four months of age. The European Commission (The EU’s civilian body) must now match recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which say baby foods cannot be marketed for use before an infant is six months old. See WHO’s position on this here.
Keith Taylor, member of the European Parliament from the United Kingdom (Greens) who led the call to reject the proposed new rules and called for their redrafting said the Parliament has voted to place the health of babies and children first. “The health risks associated with excessive sugar consumption are now widely accepted…The introduction of such high levels of sugar to foods – especially so early – is likely to contribute to the rising levels of childhood obesity and may affect developing taste preferences of children.”
Sugar is widely believed to be an acquired taste with some cultures and their foods more prone to adding sugar than others. There is a raging debate in Europe and America about sugar with some activists even going so far as to call it the new tobacco while the middle ground is that foods naturally have sugar in them and introducing more has adverse health effects. “We are delighted with this vote. We’ve been calling on the EU Commission to do something about sugar levels in baby foods since 2006 when the EU and the US blocked a proposal from Thailand to reduce sugar levels in the Codex global standard on baby foods. It is outrageous that no attention has been paid to this issue that has contributed so much to rising levels of obesity,” Patti Rundall, Policy Director of Baby Milk Action (IBFAN UK) told The News Minute. Read the European Parliament text here.
India is the diabetes capital of the world. Public health experts say childhood obesity has been increasing in an alarming way in urban India. Obesity is defined as a 20% excess of calculated ideal weight for age, sex and height of a child. Studies show that an estimated 15 to 20% percent of Indian children are obese and 30% are at the risk of falling into this category. Key determinants of childhood obesity ate unhealthy dietary habits and absence of physical activity.
There is also growing evidence to show that children and adolescents eat with their eyes before hitting that packet of chips or sugar drink posing a critical challenge for public health. Aggressive marketing often communicates false information to children and parents about nutritional values of processed foods. The recent debate on Maggi Noodles in India succinctly sums up the need to remain alert. On labeling or baby food, the WHO has called for complementary feeding of babies to be “fostered from the age of about six” months and the health body recommends breast-feeding for the same period (World Health Assembly 1994). Infant formula is also recommended in cases where the mother’s milk is inadequate. The baby food industry has fought this recommendation tooth and nail targeting mothers by promoting their foods as “healthy choices.” The 4-6 month window is very lucrative with some estimates suggesting that this segment is worth more to companies than just foods sold in that period.
Activists say the aim of the food and beverage industry is to hook babies to soft and sugary products so that processed food becomes the norm. After six months, the probability of babies joining in with less processed family foods rises dramatically – hence the race to get them before this period.
The food and beverages lobby is amongst the most powerful in the world and is also among the least regulated. The battle of the bulge now starts very early. In India where tobacco and pan masala are freely advertised, glamourized and subsidized, the food conversation has not even begun. In the meantime, obesity is rolling along, gaining speed and ground.